Spend 10 minutes talking to, listening to, or reading about anyone in the startup community, and you’ll almost inevitably hear the word “disrupt” in one of its many forms.
They’re going to disrupt the industry.
The company is disruptive.
It’s a classic disruptor.
The startup and tech worlds have taken a perfectly useful word and turned it into something devoid of meaning — a cliche thrown around by would-be insiders. While it originally referred to a strategy scrappy, young companies used to beat out giant firms, it’s now bandied about to describe almost any effort to alter or improve a business.
Here’s how it happened.
Clay Christensen gets the ball rolling
Though the word existed before him, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen put the term irrevocably into the business lexicon.
In 1995, Christensen published an article titled “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave” along with Joseph Bower that attempted to answer one of the most important questions around: Why do smart companies fail?
Andy Grove, Intel’s legendary CEO, saw some early versions of the theory, sat down with Christensen, and ended up applying the strategy to his own company as it fought AMD in the 1990s, with extreme success.
That got things started, but the real push came from his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” published in 1997. It laid out the framework of disruption at length, using now famous case studies on things like the steel industry and disk drives.
It became a massive bestseller, and the favourite book of countless CEOs and entrepreneurs. It has some staying power, too; it was one of three books that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had his senior executives read for a series of book clubs this summer.
Christensen’s idea, as laid out in his book, is an extremely useful one. Most large companies spend most of their time on what he calls “sustaining innovations,” the incremental changes that lead to new product releases. They’re typically reluctant to do anything radical or at a much lower price point that might distract from cannibalise or their core business.
Eventually, smaller and younger companies develop technology that lets them serve small customers at a far cheaper price. Big companies let them do it, because they’re so good at their lucrative core business. But then the new technology attracts slightly larger customers or more demanding consumers until, eventually, they’ve “protected” their core business to the point where they’ve lost the market, because it has fundamentally changed.
That’s disruptive innovation, and disruptive technology. It’s usually not some spectacular new technique. It’s often a small and underpowered alternative. That’s what makes it so dangerous and fascinating.
Silicon Valley co-opts the word
Part of the ethos of Silicon Valley is the idea that business and life can be improved with technology, and that the pace of change is often too slow because of entrenched interests and companies.
It’s easy to see why so many tech titans cite the book and use the term; it puts a convenient and compelling intellectual framework around their core philosophy. And if you take a broad view, there are some very real examples in the tech world.
Music sharing started out at the very low end, so low that it was illegal on peer-to-peer sharing networks. Then came iTunes, which started to legitimise things and build a lasting business. For a long time, people were still attached to their CDs, so music companies tried to make digital music difficult to download or share to protect that business. Now, CDs are essentially dead, the music industry still hasn’t caught up, and Apple has made a spectacular amount of money while truly disrupting the music business.
The result of Silicon Valley’s fascination with the term, as well intentioned as it might be, was to render the word useless. Every time a company creates something new, beats another one out, or applies data or software to a new industry, it has instantly “disrupted.”
The word was first misused in one particular way — to describe innovation on the high end, when somebody creates a better product or service. An example of this, via Matt Yglesias at Slate, is Google’s victory over Yahoo in search and web mail. They didn’t disrupt them, they just made a better product that people like more. And Uber, a company that connects passengers and cab drivers, is cited as disruptive, but it’s really just a very convenient, high-end improvement on taxi dispatch systems and regulations.
Something can be better, cheaper, and more convenient without being disruptive. The distinction, the one that people constantly miss, is that real disruption is almost impossible to see until its too late because the technology or business is so different from what already exists.
Taxi companies clearly see the threat of Uber, for example. It’s why there’s such a fierce regulatory and legal fight against its use.
Christensen bears some of the blame, in that he’s applied the theory to successively more industries, like journalism and health care, helping encourage its overuse. He’s moving on to education right now.
But once the term became a tech industry buzzword, already being used in the wrong way, things snowballed.
From business term to startup branding tool to useless buzzword
The name of TechCrunch’s signature conference, “Disrupt,” pretty much says everything about where the word is now. The conference, started in 2010, features at its core a startup competition. If you look at the winners, you see what passes for disruptive these days.
- 2010 winner Quiki helped users create slick videos.
- 2011 winners Getaround and Shaker help users rent out their cars and hang out in an online environment via avatars, respectively.
- 2012 winners ÜberConference and YourMechanic make audio conferences more bearable and finding a mechanic easier.
- This year, winners were Enigma, a company that helps connect public data points, and Layer, which lets you send messages or videos across a wide variety of apps.
All are interesting ideas, some are doing pretty well, but none are truly disruptive.
If you look at a given startup’s page on the company’s CrunchBase database, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll see the word “disrupt” in its description.
The word is so closely identified with startup culture that it’s now used in just about every situation. Because of all the headlines about huge venture rounds, big exits, and the general attention given to startups and tech companies, people in wholly unrelated fields will call things disruptive to seem like they’re as young, relevant, innovative, or as brimming with financial potential as an early stage Twitter or LinkedIn.
It was bad enough when it was used as the tagline for every startup. Now it’s applied to historic events, public initiatives, people, and everything in between.
At this point, there’s no saving it. Even the correct use is so associated with the buzzword that it’s more likely to produce a bout of eye rolling than actually create a discussion.
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